Some schools build affordable housing to retain teachers

DALY CITY, Calif. — San Francisco Bay Area high school teacher Lisa Raskin moved this month from a small apartment she shared with a roommate into her own place, paying $1,500 a month with a deep discount for a one bedroom apartment with expansive views within walking distance to work.

It was once a pipe dream in a region exorbitantly priced and hostile to new homes. But his employer, a 4,000-student school district south of San Francisco, was the rare success story in the fight to provide affordable housing, opening 122 apartments for teachers and staff in May.

“I have a sense of community, which I think is more valuable than anything else,” the 41-year-old San Francisco native said. “More districts really need to consider this model. I think it shows educators that you value them.”

The Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County’s Daly City is among the few places in the country with housing for educators. But with a nationwide teacher shortage and rapidly rising rents, the working-class district could serve as a harbinger as schools across the US seek to attract and retain educators.

“This is absolutely a solution for other districts. As we go through the process, we hear of many other districts interested in doing what we have done,” said Andrew Lie, a member of the school board. “For us, being at the forefront of this new wave of teacher and staff housing is really, really exciting.”

“It’s like a big gift from the district,” math teacher Eleonor Obedoza said of her family’s new three-bedroom apartment.

In West Virginia, the American Federation of Teachers recently helped open a building with teacher apartments and retail stores that officials hope will reinvigorate the rural town of Welch.

Teachers traveled “hours and hours to get to school and back,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT union. “So this became an idea to drive economic development and create housing.”

Jeff Vincent, co-founder and director of the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley, said such housing complexes are rare, but he hopes more school districts will explore the concept given the benefits of teachers living in the communities where they live. they work, so they can get to know students and families better.

But such projects face obstacles, including pushback from residents. Vincent urges districts to be cautious.

“One of the biggest barriers is the need for people to think outside the box,” he said. “There are skeptics about whether schools should do this with their land.”

About a quarter of Jefferson Union’s 500 employees resigned or retired each year and the district, where teacher salaries for 2022-23 start at $60,000, couldn’t compete with wealthier schools that pay new teachers $76,000 or more.

So in 2017-2018, officials devised a plan to address recruitment and retention, including a $75 million housing complex for teachers and staff funded in part by a $30 million bond measure approved by voters in 2018.

The district also has a more ambitious plan to lease school property for a 1,200-unit development that would combine retail housing with market-rate housing and generate revenue to increase teacher salaries. But the local chapter of the Sierra Club and others have raised objections. They want more units with below-market rents and taller buildings to preserve more open space, including a decades-old garden that is slated for demolition.

So far, the district has opposed those changes, inflaming critics.

“It’s terrible that schools have to come up with schemes to build housing to pay teachers,” said Gladwyn d’Souza, a member of the Sierra Club who supports housing for the workforce but says there should be more housing for all.

Tenants in the school district complex can stay for up to five years and hopefully use the time to save for a down payment on a house.

But those are also getting harder to buy. A 2016 study by Redfin found that only 20% of homes for sale in major US metropolitan areas were affordable at the median teacher salary of $62,800, down from 34% in 2012.

Boston high school English teacher Shirley Jones-Luke, who bought her home nearly two decades ago, said there’s no way she can afford one today in the rapidly gentrifying Dorchester neighborhood, where taught for years.

“It’s important for students to know that their teachers live in the same communities as them, shop in the same stores,” said Jones-Luke, who is African American. “They realize that the teachers are not disconnected because we live in the same neighborhood. I know what’s going on in the neighborhood as much as they do.”

In California, the 2016 study found that only 17% of homes were affordable at the average state teacher salary of about $74,000, down from 30% in 2012. The average teacher could pay 0.2% of the homes in San Francisco and none in Silicon Valley, where the median home sales price was $1.5 million in June.

California lawmakers in 2016 made it easier for districts to build workforce housing on school property, but some efforts have been stalled by funding and residential rejection. There are currently five workforce housing complexes in the school districts of Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

After two decades of trying, the San Francisco Unified School District plans to break ground on a 135-unit complex for educators this summer. It could be ready to lease in 2024, two years late.

“It was a struggle to get it and it’s not built yet,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of United Educators of San Francisco. “It will take the pressure off and it will be great for those people who get in there. The conclusion and the objective truth is that it is not enough.”

Jefferson Union was the rare success story, building the new complex in a former high school parking lot that is currently used for district offices.

The apartments range in monthly rent from $1,356 for one bedroom to $2,511 for three bedrooms, which officials say is 58% of the market rate. There are multiple washers and dryers on each floor, a bike room, and meeting rooms where teachers can socialize or collaborate on lessons.

Taylor and Darnel Garcia, both 27, were desperate to move out of a two-bedroom in-law unit that was too small for them and their children, ages 3 and 6. The administrative assistant and her husband, a mechanic for the school district. , pondered whether they could afford to stay in the Bay Area.

“We were kind of floating in the unknown for a while,” she said after moving into her new three-bedroom apartment in May. “It’s so hard to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a good career and I still can’t afford to live here.’ So this provided us with that.”

About 80 employees will move in by the fall and another 30 are applying for jobs, including a dozen new hires, said Tina Van Raaphorst, associate superintendent of business services. The average annual salary for residents is $62,300 and includes janitors, cafeteria workers and bus drivers who earn much less than teachers.

Melissa Kallstrom, the mother of a district student, doesn’t envy the employees their new homes. But she opposes plans to destroy the community garden that she and others say provides exceptional green space.

“This has not been developed. This has come about naturally,” she said of the garden.

Raskin understands that change is difficult. She grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, a working-class neighborhood now buzzing with trendy restaurants where she can’t afford to live alone.

During the pandemic, she moved out of her mother’s house to share an apartment with a friend. But the dwellings were cramped. The opportunity to move into a place of their own was like hitting the jackpot, said Raskin, who teaches health and social sciences.

“This is mine,” she said.

Associated Press writer RJ Rico contributed from Atlanta.

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